When it comes to holiday desserts, it doesn’t get much more controversial than fruit cake. Often dismissed because of its dry texture and garish chunks of red and green “fruit”, it’s easy to brush off the sweet as a relic of the past. That is, unless you’ve tried Black Cake, a confection hailing from the Caribbean that takes notes from fruit cake and plum puddings, but offers a moister, denser, smoother alternative. Made with liquor-soaked dried fruits blended into a smooth batter along with a mix of earthy spices and burnt sugar that gives the cake its signature dark hue, Black Cake is a labour of love – many bakers begin soaking their fruits in January for the following December!
“For me, Black Cake symbolizes the spirit of Caribbean people and islanders,” says Latisha Brown, head baker and product innovator for Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice, a Canadian dessert company that’s proudly Caribbean-owned. “It’s believed that Black Cake is evolved from British colonizer’s plum pudding – we added dried fruit, spices, and of course rum, and created something special and unique to us.” Despite its problematic history, Black Cake has been embraced as a symbol of the creativity and resourcefulness of Caribbean people.
It’s this very resourcefulness that makes it so special – Caribbean families have been making their own variations for generations based on what was available, whether in the Caribbean or abroad. “It’s quite personal for me to remember my mom purchasing a slew of dried fruits, placing them in a jar and then emptying a bottle of rum into the jar and sealing it off,” says Chef Suzanne Barr. “It went into the bottom cabinet in our kitchen and would stay there until December rolled around. Then she would start gathering all of the ingredients to make the Black Cake and the process would begin. It is truly the essence of what I think has everything to do with the Caribbean: slow, slow cooking.” Today, Barr experiments with putting her own spin on her family’s Black Cake recipe, adding spices like star anise and fresh ginger, baking it in a Bundt pan and even adding decorative touches like gold flakes.
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Every family’s Black Cake is different: “from island to island and from home to home, the recipe can change. That’s something that makes black cake really special – people take their own pride over it,” says Brown. While Jamaicans typically douse their dried fruit with rum, Trinidadians are partial to sherry wine and extra cherries. Still, the essential ingredient is always a generous pour of booze (and then another, and another) – Brown recommends adding a shot of rum on top of the cake each day until it’s finished – “Don’t be afraid to add more rum or liquor on top of your cake after it’s come out of the oven or box – it’s good luck!” she laughs. “It’ll last until New Year’s, and you can cheers with a slice of cake.”
As for how to serve that Black Cake? While you can certainly enjoy it plain (most Caribbeans do), Brown loves to serve hers with a generous scoop of Sweet N’ Nice Rum Raisin Ice Cream: “You don’t know what real dessert decadence is until you’ve tried this pairing. It’s the perfect combination of fruit, rummy, warming spice.”
While it’s a tad too late to bake your own Black Cake for this holiday season, Barr has some advice for anyone looking to make one for next year: “Get started soon!” she laughs. “No, just think about the intention that you want to put into the cake, whether it’s for your first time or have a friend that really loves it and you want to make something special. Then, make sure you have a safe place in your home where you can soak the fruit where no one will bother it. Pick the dried fruits you love and be patient – don’t peek at it, let it do its thing! Don’t worry about it spoiling. It’s got enough sugar preserving it to last a lifetime.”
If you’re not up to the task of baking your own Black Cake, “there’s usually one person in the community making it,” says Barr. “It’s beautiful knowing that this tradition is never going to stop. Being in a Caribbean community, you can always find someone that’s selling Black Cakes.” Sweet N’ Nice has taken that tradition one step further – their Black Cakes are currently available for delivery across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area and Durham Region every Thursday through to the holidays, with an order deadline of Tuesday that same week. Starting in February of 2022 (just in time for Black History Month), their cakes will be available at select Metro and Sobeys locations across the country, so regardless of where you are, you can pick one up to try for yourself. Just don’t forget to add an extra shot of rum on top for good luck!
Looking for more holiday dessert ideas? This Gingerbread Spiced Pound Cake is perfect for holiday snacking!